Elon Musk’s Starlink project under SpaceX has launched 1,737 satellites to space as of May 26th, 2021, aiming to provide low-Earth-orbit (LEO, <1,000 km above Earth) satellite Internet access to most of Earth by planned 12 thousand satellites during. His ambition also includes equipping these satellites with 6G telecommunications. During the beta time, Starlink’s users can experience data speed varying from 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms. Although it is a remarkable achievement in terms of networking, this performance is still far behind what indicators depict 6G.
Not only the US, but China has also made efforts in enhancing terrestrial-space communications. The 6G era has not come yet, but the pre-game competition already kicked off in the space. In late 2020, China successfully sent out the world's first 6G test satellite into space from Taiyuan Satellite Launch Center. The satellite is the first technical test of Terahertz communication’s application in space, which indicates China has made milestone progress in realizing 6G’s Air, Space and Earth Integrated Network.
Figure 1 First 6G Test Satellite Using Terahertz Technology in Space
Source: C114. 2020.11.6. 全球首颗6G试验卫星成功发射
The project undertaken by the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and Chengdu Guoxing Aerospace Technology made two breakthroughs – one is the development of core modules and communication system for terahertz spectrum, the other is the optimization process (minimization and low consumption) under strict conditions of load space.
Also, China recently made some new moves in exploring 6G technology. In the 5th 6G seminar in mid-July 2021, IMT-2030 (6G) promotion group formed two research teams: 1) integrated sensing and communication research and 2) wireless channel measurement and modelling. The two research will be conducted by Huawei and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications respectively.
These key initiatives indicate that China may keep the alpha position in the 6G game after the post-5G era. As more and more countries are joining 5G telecommunications (see more in the previous 5G analysis), there are still not many players that can prioritize 6G development. Here this article explains why China has the potential to top in 6G.
Strong in 5G, fast in 6G
6G is based on 5G. Along with the evolvement of telecommunications, every generation of telecommunications brings up a revolution in people’s living and working. After 1G that introduced voice, the later generations continuously bring every iteration into the next level, broader concept and deeper application. 5G promotes the network into industries by building connections between objects, and 6G bears the mission to intellectualize the connections and deepen them into people’s everyday life.
5G can be categorized into three applications: eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband), URLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication) and mMTC (massive Machine Type Communications). Based on these, 6G functions are even advanced:
eMBB is furthered into FeMBB (Further-enhanced Mobile Broadband).
URLLC is improved as ERLLC (Extremely Reliable and Low-Latency Communications).
mMTC becomes umMTC (ultra-massive Machine Type Communications). And additionally,
LDHMC (Long-Distance and High-Mobility Communications) and
ELPC (Extremely Low-Power Communications).
Compared to 5G, 6G has advanced every technical property multiple to hundreds of times. Among the KPIs shown below, 6G is expected to make over-hundred-times improvement in peak data rate, area traffic capacity and connection density, which means that 6G can transmit heavier data in a unit area with more connections in real-time. Practically, 5G makes the Internet of Things (IoT) possible, e.g., unmanned vehicles, while 6G makes IoT more intelligent (Intelligent Connections of Everything) by injecting AI and Terahertz. One prominent difference is that 5G can only exert power on land, but 6G builds a seamless integrated network of space, sky and terrestrial. 6G escalate 5G applications in many ways. For example, XR and VR are realized in 5G time, and 6G can make the full-Sensory digital sensing and reality happen. Also, the powerful 6G can hopefully bring IoT to the next level, e.g. Internet of Bio-Nano-Things, in bio-nano-robots, or bio-nano-computers.
Figure 3 5G vs 6G in KPIs
Source: CCID.2020.03. 6G 概念及愿景白皮书.
However, 6G will be faced with challenges from the energy side despite twice-enhanced energy efficiency. Undoubtedly, a 6G society needs more base stations than any other generation in history since higher frequency covers smaller areas. Thus, as more cell towers are constructed, the backup power battery business for cell towers will embrace the momentum again, as introduced in the 5G article including battery-related opportunities 5G article.
Why can China be the forerunner in 6G development?
Many voices around the globe have it that China is likely to take the lead in the race of 6G development. Among many factors, the central government’s role in China’s into-6G process is non-negligible. Indeed, as 6G has become a national initiative in China, led by the central government, this country has a bigger winning side. Echoed by the satellite project above, this first-ever achievement can be realized because the government has the powerful call to gather a lot of money and talents.
Figure 4 China’s IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group
Source: MIIT. 2020.11. New infrastructure for the digital age in 2030.
China’s IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group, established by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) of China, works as the main platform that gathers nationwide industry-university-research forces to promote 6G research and exchange views and cooperate with international parties. After many telecom companies’ 6G white papers, the national team finally released in June 2021 the national-level 6G white paper on 6G Vision and Candidate Technologies. In the published 6G document, the group illustrates the 6G vision and proposes several candidate use cases and 6G technologies, in a hope of realizing a 6G network in 2030 and beyond.
In a more detailed look, we here provide our observations and analysis from four perspectives: vision & prospect, telecommunications technology, deployment infrastructure and collaboration involvement.
Vision for 6G
In China, the conceptual task, basically visions and prospects, has been primarily undertaken by the business side because they are closer to users and industries. This manner can also help accelerate the speed for the 6G development of vision and prospects. Japan and the EU started the 6G vision design earlier, but it has progressed slowly due to the almost government-leading procedure.
China Mobile can be said to be the most active participant in developing 6G among China’s major telecommunications operators. It first published the 6G Vision white paper in Nov. 2019, followed by vendors (i.e., ZTE, VIVO) and academies (i.e., CAICT, CCID). Within 1 year, China Mobile issued 3 white papers covering prospects, tech trends and specific network architecture. Following that, in March 2021 China Unicom released its first version of 6G white paper and concluded 6G vision into four characteristics – ‘Smart, Integrated, Green and Credible’. China Telecom has not released official documents about 6G yet (as of July 12th, 2021).
Figure 5 White Papers for 6G
Source: Integral summarized, China Mobile website.
Some telecommunications companies that pioneer in 5G also start picturing 6G technology applications in the foreseeable future. Datang Mobile (大唐电信), a state-owned telecommunications company under China Information Communication Technologies (CICT) Group, and State Key Laboratory of Wireless Mobile Communications (CATT) co-published white paper ‘6G Outlook and Tech Trend’ on January 5th, 2021, highlighting use cases and technologies. Datang expects that the 6G application can help include satellite communications to realize global seamless coverage.
Figure 6 A vision for 6G
Source: Eetrend. 2019.6.20. 专家深入解读6G，原来6G是这样的.
Once the 6G visions and prospects are defined, the underlying technologies for 6G can be soon targeted to develop a technology roadmap. This is a maturing phase of understanding 6G.
In China, both the government and business side are making efforts on 6G research. The central government in the means of national key projects and financial support for companies’ 6G research. The domestic major telecom operators are more active in sharpening 6G technologies – namely China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom are taking on different 6G research paths and enhancing their influence via global 6G-themed summits.
China Mobile Research Institute (CMRI): Their research direction indicates a strong emphasis on the network, picturizing a more ubiquitous sensory extension by establishing seamless Air, Space and Earth Integrated Network (‘空天地一体化’). It specifically proposes a three-step technical roadmap for 6GDN (Deterministic Networking), based on three identified drives behind the 6G wireless network: 1)current network challenge, 2) new businesses and 3) new tech trends. In China Mobile’s design, 6G network will be featured by the following six technical characteristics in the integrated development of network, cloud and DICT (data, information and communications technology).
Figure 7 China Mobile: technical characteristics of 6G network
China Telecom Research Institute (CTRI): Different from CMRI’s tech roadmap, they believe that the unsolved challenges in 5G time should be the starting point of 6G technology development. For example, the use scenario massive Machine-Type-Communications (mMTC) has not been universally realized in 5G and hopefully will be solved by using a 6G-based solution.
CTRI focuses on a combined communications technology - using mmWave as primary spectrum and Terahertz as secondary spectrum. Besides, China Telecom also gives some outlook for 6G applications in vertical industries. Chipsets and terminals are the key areas of mobile communications. The thinner the chip is, the more difficult the production technique is. China Telecom expects to see a 2mm-thick phone chipset in the 6G era.
Figure 8 China Telecom’s prediction of 6G chipset specification
Source: Mobile Communications. 2020.06. 毕奇 / 移动通信的主要挑战及6G的研究方向
China Unicom Research Institute (CURI): They mainly look into Terahertz communications for 6G and, as one of the three big 5G network carriers in China, have already expanded 6G-related research in cooperation with ZTE with a focus on Terahertz.
Figure 9 Three-step roadmap of Terahertz technology
Marching into the 6G era, the three China telecom giants have made big progress. China Mobile, backed by a solid foundation in 5G and 4G, is the first to kick off 6G prospect and technology outlook. Following the lead of China Mobile, the other two operators look in the communications wave but with different focuses. China Unicom has furthered on 6G by entering Terahertz technology and external cooperation, while China Telecom works on mmWave. Considering these two operators work closely in 5G deployment and spectrum sharing, they may form a partnership in 6G.
Beyond 5G/6G society is based on 5G infrastructure, hence countries who pioneer in 5G deployment and construction naturally have advantages of deploying 6G considering the widespread layout of base stations.From this perspective, China and South Korea are expected to move faster than others. The US, which lags in the 5G era, is trying to catch up in the race of 6G on a seemingly zigzag road.
China has experience in the efficient deployment of 5G networks mainly conducted by three major operators. (see their deployment strategy in our 5G blog) Based on nationally spread cell towers, China has the potential to become the pioneer in launching the 6G network.
The allocation mode of 5G spectrum resources may be well replicated in the 6G era. For example, China Telecom and China Unicom may continue their co-establish and co-operate mode. On the other hand, it remains unclear that what architecture will be selected: NSA (non-standalone) or SA (standalone). NSA can rollout fast but limits the cell tower’s potential; SA costs more but can fully exert 6G power.
Source: 2020 Layer 123 World Congress. 2020.10.14. ‘Pioneering in 5G SA’ from ZTE’s Keynote
6G is described as ‘ubiquitous’, which indicates cross-border cooperation to work on a uniform standard connecting everything. The different technology paces among countries reinforce the call for international cooperation.
China has actively participated in ITU’s 6G standardization and parallels to the latter’s 6G timeline. In industry standards, China’s Huawei and ZTE are promoting the 6G technical development process via the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), an international engineering organization that covers many standards and protocols for telecommunications. However, they are faced with political suppression in participating in some 6G initiatives. Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) excludes China’s 5G pioneers – Huawei and ZTE from its US-centered Next G Alliance. In the future, the ban may be lifted considering the two companies' indispensable technological contributions to 6G.
Figure 11 ITU and 3GPP
Source: ITU. ITU towards “IMT for 2020 and beyond”.
In conclusion, China will continue its lead foot in the 6G development according to our review of vision, technology, deployment and collaboration. It does not have to be the top-notch level in every perspective but what matters more is the active engagement and quick growth.
Vision: The private-driven force makes China quicker in picturing 6G prospects.
Technology: Finial talents outline the technology roadmap and enhance global influence.
Deployment: Solid 5G foundation will benefit China in the near-future fast promotion.
Collaboration: China’s public and private parties actively join global 6G standardization and initiatives.
If China realizes 6G society, the underlying technology will bring another boom in the AI and blockchain (see our previous blockchain analysis).